Academe's Dirty Little Secret

1/05/2008 11:09:00 pm

Ed. Note: The image below titled "The Learning Pyramid" is NOT based on any verifiable research; perhaps, no research at all (see this and that). This pyramid is widely cited yet it is, as Christopher Harris shared in a recent email, a hoax. Nonetheless, I stand by the idea that the marriage of teaching and content creation is a powerful pedagogical practice. (see the comments)

A paradigm of instructional design that suggests we create learning experiences for our students where they create content that educates.

I had a conversation with a couple of friends who teach at university. We were talking about how much variation there is not only in the nature of assessment in different classes but also what work merits an A (the highest grade) or an F (failure). Some professors consider a mark of 85% an A, some require more others less. Some determine students entire grades from a single exam or paper; others require several short papers, a mid-term, final exam, and a major research paper. And these variations can occur when different instructors teach the same course and students receive the same credit (or not) for different work.

(It's amazing to me that student societies don't protest this sort of thing.)

We're no better at the K-12 level. I once attended a workshop where 30+ math teachers graded the same set of three problems. Each teacher decided how many marks each question would be worth and converted the marks to a percentage. Scores varied from percentages in the 30's to the 80's.

I guess this is academe's dirty little secret: there are no assessment standards.

To its credit the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published a set of Principles and Standards for School Mathematics in 1995 (updated in 2000). The document includes The Assessment Principle. These are guidelines only. Not all math teachers are members of the NCTM, not all math teachers are aware of these standards, and adherence to the standards is voluntary not compulsory.

One of my friends shared that she is required to ensure her classes achieve a predetermined average grade. I think that's unethical. Sometimes you get a strong group of students, sometimes a weaker group, more often it's somewhere in between. There really is no way to "predetermine" a class average. We all agreed it should be possible for a class to all achieve A grades or F grades.

I don't believe a student's grade in any course is a measure of their intelligence. I do believe it is a measure of the time, energy, and effort invested in the class. But I digress, that's another issue.

As we talked some more about assessment and pedagogy the conversation got a little more intense as I challenged my friends by saying: "If all you do is lecture do your students really need you? Couldn't they just read your assigned text, show up on test days, write the final exam and be done with it?"

That started us on a bit of a heated discussion about instructional design and assessment. What became really clear to me is that most instructors in university teach and assess their students at the bottom of Bloom's Hierarchy.

At one point, one of my friends said: "Look, we're not going to throw out hundreds of years of tradition because of what we think sitting here discussing this."

"That's not a fair criticism. It's not like there isn't scads of research in teaching and learning that I can point to supporting what I'm saying. I'm not making this up as I go along. The fact is, if you just lecture to your students, on average they're going to retain maybe 5% of what you say. You can do a lot better to make their learning sticky."

"If you really want to ramp up your teaching have your students create content that educates. That will naturally engage them at a higher cognitive level."

"You can require your students to demonstrate their understanding of what they are learning by having them apply their knowledge analyzing and evaluating relevant novel situations or problems. Better yet, get them to create content that educates an interested learner and they will automatically incorporate all those levels of engagement while they make their learning sticky. I don't need to tell you that there's nothing like having to teach a thing to make you really learn it.

The Twin Triangles

Photo credits: The University by Maddie Digital
Whispering by saaam
Bloom's Revised Taxonomy by dkuropatwa
Learning Pyramid by dkuropatwa
Bloom's Revised Taxonomy (revised) by dkuropatwa
The Twin Triangles by dkuropatwa

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